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Li Han-hsiang, Storyteller


Wong Ain-ling

Li Han-hsiang and King Hu belonged to the same generation of filmmakers, and became buddies in the 1950s, when both were still down and out. They formed a brotherly alliance with other film veterans, Feng Yi, Chiang Kuang-chao, Ma Li, Shen Zhong, and Sung Chuen-sau, and called themselves the 'Seven Idlers'. Both Li and Hu came from Northern China, and their upbringing was steeped in the culture and heritage of the ancient capital, Beijing. The art of Beijing opera was deeply ingrained in their aesthetics and became the foundation of King Hu's cinematic style. As for Li, his creative inspiration was culled from both the grandeur and decadence of the imperial court, and the vibrancy and vulgarity of the common folk who ply their trade near the bustling Tianqiao area.

Interestingly, though King Hu's career path did not exactly run smooth, during his lifetime, he was a darling of critical and scholarly establishments, and received almost unanimous critical acclaim for his works. On the contrary, throughout Li's career, with its dramatic up and down swings, there is a severe lack of systematic study of his life and works, though he produced an opus of over a hundred films. A key factor can be attributed to the hotchpotch of genres he dabbled in - from pure and earthy wenyi films to lavish period costume dramas, from meticulously researched historical epics to tongue-in-cheek fengyue films (erotica) and cautionary tales about cheating. Unlike King Hu, who single-mindedly devoted his lifetime to perfecting his art, completing only a dozen or so films with a unified style and vision, Li Han-hsiang is too difficult to pin down or categorise.

Law Kar, critic and former Programmer for the HKFA, mentioned in a recent conversation that the appraisal of Li Han-hsiang was radically different in various eras and countries. I was fascinated, and out of curiosity, flipped through Chinese Student Weekly published in the early 1960s. I discovered that Empress Wu Tse-tien (1963), now considered the exemplary Hong Kong studio epic, was the butt of vicious criticism. When the film was presented at Cannes, western critics were quite scathing in their reviews: ' Il messaggero , the Roman Catholic Democratic Party's newspaper wrote: "Empress Wu Tse-tien's flaws are unforgivable to anyone who knows even an inkling about cinema. The director's work cannot be called a film; it is a mere serial photo story that we find in many magazines" ' , ( Pai Ching-jui, 'Critics at Cannes Trash Empress Wu Tse-tien ' , 1963/6/14 ) . Local critics were more civilised in their reviews, though no less critical: 'One can say it is a comprehensive historical text (though the correctness of viewpoint is another matter). Both the historical figures and facts are neatly laid out but it lacks the tautness and urgency of modern cinema ' ( Huo Guang, 'A Random Discussion of Empress Wu Tse-tien and Seven Samurai ' , 1963/6/21) ; 'There was a maelstrom of emotions and desires whirling around that woman, and the people and events related to her. Li might have given an effective treatment of some emotions and moods, but he couldn't grasp the whole magnitude of such a colourful life. The reason for this, to put it simply, is Li's own lack of diverse interests, and his limitation in creative vision '(Tian Ge, 'Wu Tse-tien', 1963/6/21 ).

In 1984, thanks to the Hong Kong International Film Festival's retrospective programme, local critics began to see this film in a new light. Veteran critic Sek Kei maintained that the film 'has been neglected for two decades; it's about time it makes a comeback' ('Li Han-hsiang's Empress Wu Tse-tien: A Great Find in HKIFF', Ming Pao Evening Post, 1984/2/27 ). In 2002, Empress was named one of the Best 200 Chinese Classics by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society: 'Li Han-hsiang laid his dialectic premise in his palace sagas, imbuing Empress with an obviously feminist stance.... The audience may embrace the film as a spectacle (its costumes, sets and props all promise to delight), but it would come as a heavenly gem if one takes it as a palace film in its own right ' (Stephen Teo, 'Empress Wu Tse-tien' , The Best 200 Chinese Classics, 2002).

In this event, four of Li's works were included among the 200 best Chinese films. Three of them were classics of Hong Kong huangmei diao opera films - The Love Eterne (1963), the back-to-basics wenyi film The Winter (1969) made during his stint at Grand Motion Picture Company (GMP) , and Reign Behind a Curtain (1983), his expedition to China to pursue his lifelong dream of making Qing dynasty imperial court sagas. And one should not overlook another film that made it to the Best 200 list - At Dawn (1968), another GMP production. Though it was helmed by Sung Chuen-sau, the overall concept and creative force behind the work no doubt came from Li himself. Whether it's a matter of genre, studio aesthetics or industry links with Hong Kong, the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, Li Han-hsiang was a mover-and-shaker in the Chinese film industry.

Even though we didn't have the good fortune of meeting Mr Li Han-hsiang in person, we were lucky to discover from the memorabilia donated by his family, some documentary footage shot at the time when he was filming in Beijing. Grace Ng has collated this filmed 'oral history', narrated by Li himself, into an article. In 1975, Lau Shing-hon interviewed Li to discuss issues of creativity. It was subsequently published as 'A Conversation with Li Han-hsiang' . The interview covered many bases and was quite sharp and provocative. We are grateful to the author for granting us permission to include it in our book. These two texts complement each other, and can be read as Li's 'self portrait'.

We also interviewed many actors, directors and film production veterans for first-hand experiences of working with Li. From their comments and recollections, we get a vivid image of Li - a stout and dark-skinned northerner, fondly arranging and rearranging his beloved antiques and curiosities on the film set, or entertaining friends at home, and chatting at the top of his voice. From the recollections of Shu Don-lok and Lin Fu-ti, and from the loving memories of his daughters Yen-ping and Margaret, we can trace his footsteps from Hong Kong to Taiwan, and finally to Beijing. Not only do we observe an artist's pursuit of his dreams about cinema, we can also distil from his travails, the intricate story of mainland - Taiwan relations during the Cold War and beyond.

Branching out from an existing body of research by local critics like Sek Kei, Li Cheuk-to, Stephen Teo, Chan Fai-yeung and Evans Chan Yiu-shing , our commissioned writers undertook for the first time a more systemic critical review of Li's works. They explore his contribution from various perspectives: of cultural heritage, narrative style, genre, historical imagination, gender and sexuality, and his influence in the Chinese-speaking film industry. Many other scholars have expressed ideas on classics like The Love Eterne and other cherished works from his costume dramas on 'famous beauties'. Examples include 'The Female Consciousness, the World of Signification and Safe Extramarital Affairs: A 40th Year Tribute to The Love Eterne' by Peggy Chiao Hsiung-ping in The Shaw Screen - A Preliminary Study, the online articles 'Dream of Chinese Culture', 'Revisioning the Chinese Impression: The Scenic Writing of Li Han-hsiang' (on Li's aesthetics of set and scene design), and the book I Love Huangmei Diao: Classical Impressions of a Musical China: A Preliminary Look at Huangmei Diao Films from Hong Kong and Taiwan by Edwin W. Chen. Since extensive research has been done in this area, we have decided to cover other ground.

As for the examination of the era of GMP, and its impact on the development of Taiwanese cinema, Peggy Chiao's Five Years That Changed History: A Study of Grand Motion Picture Company is still the most comprehensive research to date.

If a consistent image or appraisal of Li Han-hsiang cannot be gleaned from this retrospective, it is because he is characteristically full of contradictions. Just like the enigmatic historical figures in his films, he is someone who demands to be re-evaluated by setting aside all kinds of preconceptions and prejudices.

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to the film veterans who spared the time for the interviews, and to our contributing writers, Mr Lawrence Wong Ka-hee, and the institutions which furnished us with the valuable film stills. Special thanks should go to Director Li Han-hsiang's family - Ms Lee Yen-ping, Ms Margaret Li, Ms Mary Lee, Ms Merisa J. Lee, and Mr Michael Lee - without whose assistance this project would not have been made possible.



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